Hurricane shutter troubles aired – again

CLEWISTON — The topic of hurricane shutters repeatedly comes up in Clewiston, as residents and city commissioners both have publicly aired their concerns throughout 2018 about the window coverings being left up for extended periods, contrary to city code.

It’s been a matter of some consternation for many in town, particularly for Clewiston Code Enforcement Officer Debbie McNeil, Planning and Zoning Board member Jerry Cochrane, several of the commissioners and city residents who regularly post comments on a Facebook page called “Make Clewiston Great Again.”

Mr. Cochrane asked at the city commission’s Sept. 10 meeting for any update. “What progress is being made in getting some of these people to remove the plywood shutters that they put up a year ago? Because there’s still a fair amount of it around town,” he pointed out.

It was exactly one year after the night Hurricane Irma began making landfalls in Florida in September 2017. And at the moment, Hurricane Florence was strengthening in the Atlantic before its hit on the Carolinas and there were two other hurricanes churning, Helene off Africa and Isaac plus “Invest 95L” in the Caribbean.

Commissioner Phillip Roland answered him: “I think I’d leave them up right now, Jerry. I’m serious; I wouldn’t take mine down if I had them up right now, but I do agree with you.” Mr. Roland has brought up the topic himself at several commission meetings.

Mr. Cochrane noted that after Hurricane Irma last year, “we didn’t enforce the ordinance that they’re supposed to have been removed. But we’re looking at a year now, that these things are up. And I expect the city to do a little bit better on code enforcement than that. I think we’ve been turning a blind eye to it. It’s an eyesore!”

Vice Mayor Michael Atkinson, chairing the meeting with Mayor Mali Gardner absent, asked Officer McNeil if she had any update on that. She said:

“I didn’t come prepared with the numbers of shutter cases, but I can assure you that it’s one of my highest numbers of violations that’s been done, since Irma. Of course we let more than the 72 hours that our current ordinance does allow. After Irma we did allow it to go longer. I think I started three months out after Irma. People were still dealing with debris.

“But I did start asking for the plywood to come down, then moving on to the metal shutters and then the roll-down shutters, because our ordinance say that even though they have the permanent hardware structure, they cannot be closed for any period other than 72 hours before, 72 hours after a storm, for a two-week period during the hurricane season. I did send out my violation notices. I have been doing it throughout the hurricane season.”

She said these violations bring her constant dilemmas. “I was driving around with my new employee who I’m training today and I noticed a couple of new ones that were up, and I was like, ‘Should I stop and knock on their door?’ Because where’s Isaac going? I’m not sure. Is it coming? So now I’m in a Catch-22 as I ride around and see new wood windows coming up as to how I should continue to proceed with that.”

Mr. Atkinson sympathized. “Yeah, I think now with those storms out there, we kind of leave it and see,” he said.

“But it definitely has NOT been not done. And yes, I’m the sole code enforcement officer,” said Ms. McNeil, “but I can assure you that the violation numbers are high.”

Commissioner Julio Rodriguez said: “After the hurricane season ends in November, we should have zero tolerance on that. We’ve got to get them off.”

Officer McNeil agreed but pointed out that “the biggest problem is the plywood, of course the easiest for them to put in place. And then I get a lot of blowback, you know. ‘Oh, it helps me with my air conditioning bill.’ There are so many other reasons that I get blowback when I ask them to remove it.”

Commissioner Kristine Petersen noted that leaving shutters up can pose a safety issue and noted the commissioners have been talking about tweaking the city’s ordinance to make some allowance for part-time residents, which Mr. Roland has said before is needed. They’ve also discussed instituting a shorter code enforcement timeline on these violations so they don’t have such a problem with scofflaws, which Ms. McNeil noted is continuing still, a year after Irma, because of the code enforcement magistrate/quasi-court system in place.

She also said she was reluctant to cite violations after Irma because of the length of time the cleanup took. “Seventy-two hours after Irma I felt like I needed to get out there and start telling people to take the plywood off the walls because that’s the rule, but … they were still trying to get trash off their yard.”

City Manager Al Perry said: “We can bring that back to you, if you like. I think 72 hours is just unreasonable.”

Ms. McNeil said she had talked about a citation process with City Attorney Gary Brandenburg, one involving fines rather than having to go through the magistrate, in order to force more timely compliance.

Vice Mayor Atkinson asked him, “Gary, is that something that can be done; can you look into that?” The attorney said he would. The commissioners may be considering the topic again at their next meeting, this coming Monday, Oct. 15.

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